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Back from Scotland

Can I pass up a chance to travel someplace new, even when the focus of a short trip is on a subject of limited interest to me and the logistics involve spending a lot of time on the bus with a bunch of strangers that I have little in common with?

The answer is, resoundingly, I cannot!

A few weeks ago, during a get-together, my old friend Alex unexpectedly invited me to join him for a three-day trip to Scotland. I enthusiastically accepted. I had a number of reservations about doing it, but the little trip seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore a locale that I had never visited before, and it shaped up like a needed distraction from everyday gloom and doom.

I am happy to report that even though every one of my reservations played out true, the trip was nonetheless quite delightful.

My misgivings were threefold.

First of all, I absolutely hate going on tours with groups of strangers. Absolutely positively hate it! The sheer amount of time that is wasted on getting everyone together and ready drives me insane. One person feels sick, the other is engrossed in an important phone conversation and cannot be bothered with the delay he’s causing, someone else is simply not found anywhere and does not respond to his mobile phone… And, of course, the pace of the expedition gets averaged down to the lowest common denominator, with unnecessary questions forcing the guides to repeat what they said a few seconds ago verbatim, skipping – or skimming on – points in itinerary because the group is perpetually behind the schedule, and souvenir shop time being the largest overall portion of the tour. And with practically no chance to, you know, explore.

This was a relatively small group of 16 people but, inevitably, we had plenty of opportunities to waste the little time that we had. Thankfully, verbal sparring with a good friend provided a welcome outlet for channeling my annoyance.

Secondly, the focus of the expedition was whisky. I mentioned several times in the past within this blog that I am not too partial to drinks with high alcoholic content and, while I was looking forward to learning about whisky, I was surely the least “aficionado” of the entire group. I certainly ended up as the only one who did not buy a single bottle to bring home with me (although I bought a nice illustrated “encyclopedia” of Scottish whisky).

As I expected, there was very little sightseeing done on the tour beyond distilleries. We drove about 400 miles around Scottish countryside, through breathtaking scenery – although our driver freely admitted that we did not set foot in the most dramatically scenic parts of the country – and pretty little towns, but the only non-whisky-related stop was for a 25-minute stroll to the striking Falls of Braan, near Dunkeld.

Pity, but it certainly whetted my appetite for a future exploration.

Finally, the composition of the group was another source of semi-trepidation. The tour was organized by the religious community to which my friend belongs. All of the folks except me were believers. My heritage and general familiarity with Judaism made me an acceptable fellow traveler to the group, but it was awkward at moments nonetheless.

Remaining respectable during the conduct of services is only part of the deal at Jewish prayers, as they are comparatively elaborate affairs, with individually-read prayer passages converging onto the ones read aloud by one of the revellers at specific moments; with congregation expected to respond with prescribed exclamations at just the right points of the prayer that is being read aloud; and with a bit of choreography of bows, steps and gestures involved. Since being the tenth for a minyan is a widely-appreciated mitzvah, I joined in prayer services at first, but finding yourself as the only “dummy” in the room is exponentially worse than simply being the only non-believer. I skipped services later in the trip; thankfully, there were normally ten men present even without me. I did feel quite uncomfortable at being a sort of an intruder and even felt compelled to apologize to the Rabbi leading the group at some point. He was rather magnanimous about my lack of belief.

Annoyances, trepidations and awkwardness aside, the trip was an enjoyable experience.

I learned quite a lot about whisky, especially as we went on four different tours that essentially all told us exactly the same thing about the process of malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation. There were some fun tour variations at a couple of distilleries, such as a “master” tasting experience of half a dozen different varieties at one and a blending workshop at another1. We also visited a cooperage, which was altogether fascinating. Alex even considered leaving his financial services career behind and becoming a cask-maker instead…

We tried a dozen or so different whiskies at five Highlands and Speyside distilleries. It is kind of funny how distilleries are marketing themselves for differentiation from others (there are close to 100 distilleries producing Scotch Whisky, which has to be aged on Scottish soil for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day to earn the right to be called such): One is proclaiming itself the oldest, another the smallest, and some other “the most beautiful”. In one place, we saw the label proudly stating that the contents of the bottle were produced under a direct supervision of the master distiller, whatever that might mean.

I confirmed that I, unfortunately, have very little taste for this type of drink. At one distillery, we were offered a swig of whisky wash, pre-distilled beer-like result of fermentation, and I pronounced it the best beverage of all that we tasted, to the general amusement of others.

We did glance upon some fantastic vistas, if only through the bus windows and with little chance to make a quality photograph. I tried to shoot a lot, nevertheless, and hope to be able to come up with at least a handful of good pictures in a few days.

I did make connections with several other members of the group, so that we could spend lengthy rides from one place to another with a friendly banter. Alex’s and my Soviet background provided an endless source for flat jokes and discussion topics.

I’m unlikely to make a similar trip any time soon again, but I’m glad I went.

I actually must have been pretty excited recounting the highlights of the trip to Natasha as we went to bed last night. At some point, Becky knocked on our bedroom door and said: “I realize you two lovebirds are happy to see each other, but can you stop talking loudly, please! I’m trying to sleep.”

We laughed. And woke up Kimmy, too.

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1 I have little doubt that my concoction of 60% North British grain whisky, 16% of a Highlands brand, 16% of a Lowlands brand, and 8% of an Islay smoky brand, – I called it “Golden Russian” – is entirely undrinkable. We were only allowed to smell the ingredients and the end product, not drink it, if we wanted to keep the 100ml bottled result as a souvenir. I brought the bottle home.

Posted in State of travel

13 Comments

  1. Andrea

    Just wanted to let you know that I have been a longtime “lurker” of your blog and I really enjoy it. I know you are in a blogging dip at the moment but don’t give up! There are people who are out there reading and appreciating! Just an FYI, I stumbled across your blog looking for info on moving to the UK. My hubbie was going to get a job over there (something we looked forward to for the same reasons as you and your family) but due to the economic downturn the job fell through. Who knows maybe in a year or three we will have another chance!!

  2. Cheryl Sligh

    Last August was my first trip to the Highlands. We went to Fort WIlliam and the Ben Nevis area and also took a ferry over to Isle of Skye. Scotland is just beautiful and I can’t wait to go again. Perhaps you might take the family up by trian and then rent a car? It’s too beautiful to not tour properly and although known for it’s whiskey (I am not much of a whiskey drinker myself) there are far more beautiful places to see with historical value. Take a look (google) at Neptunes Staircase for instance.

  3. Ilya

    Thanks for reading, Andrea, for saying ‘hi’ and for the encouragement. I hope you do get another chance and our trials and tribulations do not scare you away 🙂

  4. Ilya

    The bit of a problem with Scotland, Cheryl, is that it is the epitome of British unpleasant weather for most of the year. I can only think of going up with the family in summer months, but we have all of those other important destinations in mind for the summer… But I’m definitely keen on properly exploring it – our bus driver even gave me an outline for a self-driven circuit (so it was a proper reconnaissance, Sharon). We’ll see when and if we can do it one day.

  5. Ilya

    Kostyan, in two and a half days, if your plan is to taste a dozen of different varieties of Scotch, you probably cannot do much of golf or castles. We saw those from the bus windows…

    Our driver was wearing a kilt all the time, though.

    Vince, I tried haggis in the past. I’ll charitably say that my food tastes run elsewhere…

  6. jason

    Ah, Scotland… this will be my next out-of-America destination, whenever I and The Girlfriend manage to scrape together enough pennies. I am a whiskey drinker myself (although I prefer the Irish variety — it’s a bit more gentle), but we both have a fascination for the landscape and the history of the area…

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